MILWAUKEE (SPECTRUM NEWS) — On Wednesday, students across most University of Wisconsin campuses returned to class for the first day of fall semester. As school gets underway, there are already more than 350 COVID-19 cases across the system, according to data dashboards published by several UW campuses.
The UW system is offering a combination of in-person and online classes across its campuses, with a widespread testing protocol supported by $32 million in funding from the state. UW System President Tommy Thompson said at an August event that he thought their plan was “as good or better as any university I’ve seen.”
As of Wednesday, information reported by four UW campuses showed a total of 360 positive cases. Other schools did not appear to have case data published online, although Thompson told the La Crosse Tribune that the entire UW system would launch a dashboard soon to track cases across campuses.
The majority of the cases come from UW-Madison, the biggest school in Wisconsin. UW-Madison has administered more than 11,000 tests since early August as students moved in, and plans to conduct biweekly testing in the residence halls moving forward.
According to the university’s “Smart Restart” dashboard, 173 cases — made up of 168 students and five employees — have been identified through on-campus testing so far. Another 140 students and 14 employees tested positive through off-campus testing, for a total of 327 people.
“The university has expected an increase in positive cases as students return to Madison and settle into new routines,” the university wrote in a briefing on Wednesday. “Most students are doing the right thing – wearing face coverings when socializing with people who are not their roommates, physically distancing and avoiding parties, and practicing safer behaviors at protests.”
At UW-Milwaukee, there were 13 students and three faculty or staff cases as of Wednesday, according to the school’s COVID-19 dashboard. A UW-Whitewater “Warhawks Return” dashboard showed 14 students and two staff cases reported in the past two weeks.
And at UW-Parkside, the university’s “Ranger Restart” dashboard only reported one employee case, which was originally announced Aug. 19.
Colleges and universities across the country have struggled to deal with cases cropping up as students have returned to campus for the fall. According to a New York Times analysis, more than 26,000 cases have been reported across hundreds of schools. Some schools — including the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Northwestern University, and Michigan State University — have already sent students home or reversed course to advise them not to show up on campus.
Along with its testing plans, classroom distancing, and increased cleaning measures, the UW system has also made direct pleas to students to stave off outbreaks by avoiding parties and other social gatherings. Though they go by different names, initiatives like Milwaukee’s “Panthers Protect Panthers,” Madison’s “Badger Pledge,” and Whitewater’s “Warhawk Social Covenant” all have similar messages: In this pandemic, students’ behavior will make a big difference.
“What you do off-campus is as important as what you do on it, because we want you here the whole year,” Thompson said in a message to students last week. “It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.”
And even if outbreaks do pop up, it's best for students to remain on campus, infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci said in a Wednesday interview with the "Today" show. Sending them back could lead to them spreading COVID-19 in their home states, he said.
"It's the worst thing you could do," Fauci said.